Resilience of the Global Food System

Photo Credit: R.Gustafson / USAID

Photo Credit: R.Gustafson / USAID

The impact of climate change on future crop production will depend on the impact on mean yields and on the incidence and scale of extreme outcomes.  More frequent droughts, heatwaves, and floods due to climate change could severely disrupt the world's food supply.  We are participating in an international scientific task force on extreme weather and global food system resilience.  The goal is to assess the impact of extreme weather upon the global food chain and offers recommendations on how to mitigate the potential damage from future crises. 

The task for has released its findings in a new report.  The report assessed the impact of extreme weather upon the global food chain and offers recommendations on how to mitigate the potential damage from future crises.  

Our  research on "once-in-a-century" food threats -- which we found may become as frequent as once every decade by the 22nd century -- is a prominent feature of the report's warnings, which additionally highlight the concentration of the world's most important crops (maize, soybeans, wheat, and rice) in very few countries, which could exacerbate the damage if extreme weather hits one or more of these regions. An increasingly global market for agricultural products offers protection against small, local food shortages, but may actually increase vulnerability for global shocks, the report also concludes.

“It is likely that the effects of climate change will be felt most strongly through the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves and floods and their impact on the production and distribution of food – something we almost take for granted," said Professor Tim Benton of the Global Food Security program, in a news release on the report. “This study presents a plausible scenario for how the food system might be impacted by extreme weather, alongside a series of recommendations that should help policy and business plan for the future. Action is urgently needed to understand risks better, improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks and to mitigate their impact on people.”

Recommendations in the primary report include more research to understand the risks and "worst case scenarios" of future extreme weather, improved coordination between governments on how to handle such food supply shocks, improving the resilience of international markets, and adapting agriculture to expected climate change to protect crops. 

Distributions of global calorie-weighted yield of maize, soy, wheat, and rice for the historical (1951-2010) and near-future (2011-2040) period with (top) and without (bottom) the effects of fertilization from increasing atmospheric CO2 included. The estimated magnitude of a 1-in-200 year event in each period is indicated.

Distributions of global calorie-weighted yield of maize, soy, wheat, and rice for the historical (1951-2010) and near-future (2011-2040) period with (top) and without (bottom) the effects of fertilization from increasing atmospheric CO2 included. The estimated magnitude of a 1-in-200 year event in each period is indicated.

In addition to the primary findings, we also co-authored "Annex A" of the report, which focused on Climate and Global Food Production Shocks. We studied the relationship between weather and historical food production shocks (such as the "Dust Bowl" drought of the 1930s), then used crop-climate models to simulate present-day or near-future extreme events.

The report highlights the extreme concentration of certain globally-important crops. For example, almost 60% of the world's maize is grown in the United States and China. For soybeans, 80% of the global supply is farmed in just three countries: the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina. A severe drought in any of these countries, even if it only decreases crop production by 10%, would likely have dramatic consequences for the rest of the world. However high-resolution climate model runs are needed to better quantify the risk of extreme events and food shocks.

Phase II of this project launches in Fall 2015 and will focus on multiple bread-basket failure.

For more on the report, see news stories in The New York TimesScienceThe Guardian, and BBC.

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